I am the eldest grandchild, so long ago I got grandparent-naming rights. I couldn't say grandma, it came out Mau Mau, which my grandmother disliked and my instigating grandfather encouraged. The name stuck for 25 years.
So on Saturday Mau's best friend, five children, four children-in-law, ten grandchildren, two grandchildren-in-law, and two great grandchildren showed up, and still the person she wanted to see the most wasn't there. Doff-- that instigating grandfather-- seven years gone now, was notably absent. But somehow not.
Not long after his passing, Mau decided she no longer wanted that name. "Call me 'Sunshine,'" she said, and started referring to herself as such. She signed one card "Sunshine, née, Mau." Another time she wrote, "Sunshine AKA Mau AKA Sally AKA I don't care what you call me as long as you love me."
My brother John and I both recalled a time Mau was taking care of us when we were small. She managed to whack me in the head with a 20-foot pole while cleaning the pool (John maintains it was he who was whacked), we both got splinters on the deck, and John was stung by a bee. When Mau reached for the meat tenderizer, I remember John thinking he might be cooked. An avid walker, she used to take us on walks around her sprawling neighborhood. I remember her leaning into me as she talked, pushing me up on the curb. She told me the latest gossip about the neighbors. It made me feel like more than a little girl; I felt like a trusted friend.
Certainly the highlight of the party was the slide show John painstakingly put together. He compiled photos from all over that beautifully told the story of a life, a love. He started when she was young-- a teenager. She had been a dancer, so some photos were of her in costume, dancing. Emerie, my youngest, pointed at the screen and said, "Mommy, why dat pincess doin' ballet?" The photos, as assembled, were so dignified, so graceful. Sally smiling on her wedding day with the man she had really only just met who had initially lied about his age (not unlike my dear husband). Sally in any number of cocktail dresses, dancing and smiling next to Doff. The two of them on cruise ships, on European cobblestones, beside Californian redwoods. My smirking grandfather with a camera around his neck or horseshoes in his hand. The two of them at their fortieth wedding anniversary, then their fiftieth. The show progressed from her life, to their life, and it seemed there were few dry eyes in the room.
We laughed and (and some cringed) as the focus turned to her children. We saw hairstyles and clothing from a different time, old homes, former pets, all brought back memories. It moved to grandchildren, and eventually great grandchildren. At this point, I was sitting on the floor while Emerie pirouetted in front of me, inspired by the beautiful princess in the pictures. I saw a photo I'd never seen -- one of me as a two-year-old, with sweaty blond curls not unlike my Emerie's. I was sleeping on the couch in the crook of my grandfather's arm; the camera seemed to have interrupted his dozing. When I saw it, I lost my composure. It was so casual, so loving, so beautiful. I have to have that photo.
My grandparents had a love that I don't think I really appreciated fully, maybe not until looking at those pictures. Maybe being a wife and being a mother have softened me (yes, husband, this is "softened"). Watching that slide show made me realize what a lovely life my grandmother has had thus far, all of the roles she's been able to play, how many people her life has touched. It was a beautiful day. It made me thankful for the Sunshine in my life, and hopeful that one day, 50 years from now, I might have the privilege of looking back over that kind of a life. My thoughtful brother included, as the last slide, a photo of Sunshine on a float in the pool at her old house. Her head thrown back, a half smile on her face, she looked carefree. The caption read, "To be continued."
Happy Birthday, Sunshine. And, whatever we call you, know that we love you.